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The Endgame of women's empowerment

Avengers: Endgame fails to fix Marvel Cinematic Universe's recurrent problems with women

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There’s a scene in the battle sequence of Avengers: Endgame where all the women of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) are brought together in one frame, as an army of sorts to take on the supervillain Thanos. It’s supposed to make us cheer and celebrate Marvel’s progressiveness by recognising the badassery and clout that its superheroines bring to the table. In reality, it’s a lazy and patronising scene, and proof of just how little the bosses at Marvel understand what they have been doing wrong for over a decade.

Watching Endgame was a deeply moving experience for me. I hopped aboard the MCU carousel with the first Iron Man film all the way back in 2008, and I’ve been on it for the last 11 years and through 22 films. It’s tough to believe that the 22-movie narrative of the Infinity Saga is well and truly over. And as an MCU enthusiast, I’m glad Endgame made a gasp-worthy $1.2 billion within the opening weekend itself, smashing all kinds of domestic and international records in the process.

As a fan, I’m grateful for the emotional journey that the film took me on, but as a woman, I can’t help being disappointed. And very, very mad.

One measly scene that amounts to little more than a forgettable ‘hurrah to girl power’ moment is hardly enough to make up for years of neglect. Marvel owes its fans — especially the women — who have spent 11 years watching the superheroines being treated as afterthoughts, more than a few seconds of CGI-enabled lip service. And what on earth compelled them to truncate Black Widow’s character so callously and bring it to such a dissatisfying end?

After so many years of being treated like a possible love interest in multiple male superheroes’ solo films (turning her into a bit of a joke), Natasha Romanoff’s character finally seems to be coming into its own in the first half of Endgame. Unlike the men who are marinating in misery, Black Widow takes charge of the Avengers and finds the grit to do whatever it takes to get back the family she built herself within the supergroup.

Watching her being unceremoniously pushed into the background with the reins quickly handed back to Captain America and Iron Man was painful — and more than a little insulting. One could argue that an enhanced supersoldier at the peak of human ability and a genius inventor in a powerfully weaponised suit are higher up the superhero pole than a mortal assassin, but that still doesn’t explain why she’s made to jump to her death just so Barton, only the weakest link in the Avengers, whose superpower is archery, can live and be reunited with his family.

What was the message here? That the life of a rage-filled man was more valuable than that of a woman who was working to better a grief-stricken world simply because she hadn’t procreated in the process?

Black Widow’s death (as ill-timed as it was) deserved to be treated as more than a footnote in Endgame. Compare her send-off to Tony Stark’s, who gets a funeral, tear-filled goodbyes and even a chance to speak to his daughter from beyond the grave.

The only way Marvel could have made it even clearer that there’s no real, meaningful space for women in the MCU was if its characters carried picket signs saying so. At this point, even if Marvel were to make that promised Black Widow film, it would be too little too late — how can it expect fans to invest themselves emotionally and intellectually in a character who has already died in their minds?

Marvel is known for its self-deprecating humour and witty quips, but it’s almost always the men who get the best punchlines. While the men engage in light-hearted banter, endearing themselves to fans, the superheroines of MCU are so dour and ill-tempered most of the time, you would want to cross the road to avoid them.

Scarlet Witch, Nebula, Gamora and Wasp are rarely, if ever, afforded moments of levity. Pepper Potts spends most of her time chastising Tony, first as his assistant and later his partner. And while

Shuri, Okoye, Valkyrie and Captain Marvel have all been written as sharp, lively characters, they get pitifully little screen time in Endgame.

Marvel makes space for a Peter Parker - Tony Stark reunion, but there’s not a moment to be spared for Okoye to welcome Shuri back.

That MCU has always had a major women problem is an established, persistent and infuriating fact, especially for its female fan base. But Endgame seems like a particularly egregious insult to an injury that’s been festering for a long time.

Sonali Kokra is a journalist and author from Mumbai. She writes on women’s issues, pop culture and the intersection of the two

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